The San Lucas Mission Forestry Project began in 1975 in recognition of the need to reverse the rapid rate of deforestation taking place in Guatemala. As trees were cut for lumber and more land was cleared for farming to feed the growing population, the steep slopes were being left exposed to soil erosion and changes in micro-climate.
At age 15, Torribio Chajil, the Program Director for reforestaion efforts, began learning basic nursery management on the job working with Peace Corps Volunteer, Dave Davis and, throughout the years, the forestry program has become renowned throughout the country.
Working together, Dave and Torribio experimented and developed techniques for growing pine, alder, and cypress from seed collected in the local area. The trees were planted to control erosion on slopes too steep to farm. The original nursery on the Juan Ana Farm produced about 1000 trees annually.
More than 30 years later, with a trained workforce, the nursery now produces 40,000 to 50,000 trees a year of over 20 species. These trees are offered for sale to private individuals and for free to schools and other organizations to be planted for erosion control, ornamentals, fire wood and to produce lumber for the future.
The most famous trees produced today are the improved cypress, the result of a seed improvement project begun in 1981 by Toribio and John Williams, a forester from North Carolina. Together they traveled throughout the highlands of Guatemala surveying native stands and plantations of cypress, collecting seed from the best trees.
These original 30 families of seed were planted in a seed bank in Pachitulul, outside of San Lucas. Using innovative grafting techniques to speed the process, several generations of selection for growth rate, form, and root system strength have resulted in 15 families of improved trees that can grow several times faster than the native trees. The reforestation effort has kept detailed records at each stage of the selection process and can recommend the best family for a specific planting condition.
In the educational part of the program, classes are taught in local schools and, more preferably, students are welcomed to the nursery to learn about the importance of trees and reforestation. The students receive hands-on experience in nursery work by mixing soil with compost and filling the plastic bags into which the seedlings will be transplanted by the nursery staff.
Recently, the reforestation project has begun a side-project of making spoons and other kitchen utensils out of wood, with the purpose of educating young people about the value of each part of the tree. Using only simple hand tools, they rough out a unique shape depending upon the piece of wood they have to work with. Sand paper and bee's wax finish the job.
As Toribio never tires of saying, "Without trees there is no life."